Ruminations on Cyber-Race

Ruminations on Cyber-Race

I am a Korean-American law professor with two very different research agendas. On the one hand, I am deeply curious about technology and its impact on society. My undergraduate degree is in physics, and I write about communications. On the other hand, as an immigrant and member of a racial minority, I am deeply curious about how race works in our minds and our society. Commitment to racial justice explains my shift from science into law. I assumed that my two areas of scholarly interest would not intersect in any theoretically interesting way. Then, one day in cyberspace, something remarkable happened.

As background research on virtual communities, I was participating in graphical worlds. In these places, one picks an avatar (a graphic representation of the self), navigates visually depicted environments, and chats with other individuals. In one world, I played a young, muscular, bald black man. One afternoon, a character who appeared as a white female asked me whether I was an “African American” in real space. When I said “yes,” I was sprayed with racist bile:

Perpetrator: hey nigger

Perpetrator: betta watch out we got an eye on you and others do to your reported to the aryan nation KKK mutherfucker!!

Perpetrator: eine mine mo catch a nigger by his toe and if he hollers let him go! HEHEHE

Perpetrator: KKK

Me: Why don’t you come out to play? [The perpetrator had been sending me these messages privately, after disappearing from the room that I was in. I was trying to get her to reappear.]

Perpetrator: run nigger run [This was in response to my leaving the room, in which I was originally attacked]

Me: Are you afraid to show yourself even in the virtual world?

Perpetrator: were are you at>??

Me: I’m at the teleporter, near Temple St.

Perpetrator: answer monkey boy

Me: So why are you so filled with hate?

Perpetrator: Im not just dont like niggers thats all

Perpetrator: white power!!

In the course of this “conversation,” the assailant manipulated her avatar as well as other “physical” items in the virtual room as if she were striking me. It’s hard to express how I felt about this “fighting words” episode. Although I’ve heard many epithets as a “chink” or “gook,” I’d never been attacked as a black man. This vitriol felt different. It left me speechless.

It also got my mind going. Current race literature emphasizes that “race is a social constructio...